01.22.12 Fruit of the Spirit—Love, Galatians 5:22-26, 1 John 4:7-21, Sermon Summary
The writings bearing John’s name are often philosophically complex and carry multiple level of meanings. Fortunately this passage contains an easy to remember summary illustration right at the end: Love comes from God, and if you say you love God, then you must love your neighbor.
- Three characteristics of God’s Love
- Human challenges to the Fruit of the Spirit
- How to overcome those challenges
God is directly “defined” only a few times in the Bible, and this passage is one of them: God IS love. We would expect God to be a mystery, and we know love is one, but there are at least three things we can say about God’s love, and thus about God’s nature.
First, God’s love is a gift. Ephesians 2:4-5 says, “God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” Likewise, 1 John says we know of God’s love because of the gift of Christ. Because it is a gift, God’s love isn’t something we can earn or lose; it can only be received.
This has an important implication for how we approach the Christian life. So many of us end up spiritually neurotic because we are trying so hard to love God. First John says that this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loves us. In other words, instead of trying so hard and failing so miserably to love God, the first step is simply to receive. And once received, 1 John tells us how to love God back. Which brings us to the second characteristic.
God’s love is concrete. When the disguised Jesus accompanies the Emmaus disciples, he teaches them how the Messiah had to suffer. God’s gift of love in Christ wasn’t simply spiritual enlightenment. It was incarnate, one with us, and suffered everything we suffer. After we receive God’s love, we love God back by loving our brothers and sisters. When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus answers with two: love God and love your neighbor (Mark 12:29-31). He’s saying we love God by loving our neighbor. Paul writes that love is the fulfillment of the law (Galatians 5:14) and that faith is made effective through love (Galatians 5:6). Earlier, 1 John urges us not to love with words alone, but with action (1 John 3:18). But we need to know how to direct this action, our love. This leads us to the third characteristic.
God’s love is unbounded. Romans 5:8 says that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Even when we were enemies of God, and even when we still oppose God, God’s gift of love in Christ is directed towards us. This is why Jesus can make one of the most audacious claims—to love our enemies.
The first fruit of the Spirit is love. In another letter, Paul exalts three principles of the spiritual life: faith, hope, and love. The greatest of these, he says, is love. Atop many other virtues the Christian is to manifest, love is our highest aspiration. The reason God gave us such a concrete demonstration of his love, and why the Bible so often calls us to love, is because God calls us to participate in the divine life, and loving as God loves is contrary to our human nature.
We are each born with, and then our culture encourages, what psychologists call the Ego. Ego is a Greek word translated “I.” When we say, “I like this; I don’t like that; what’s in it for me,” we are referring to our Ego. Ego is naturally self-centered in its attitude and perspective. It believes everything exists for itself: creation, other people, money, for example. While Ego makes it possible for us to individuate into unique people, it also facilitates a selfish posture that is inhibited in loving.
The disciples of John the Baptist (not the author of John’s Gospel and letters) were Ego-driven when they asked him about Jesus’ rising popularity. They saw it as a threat to their own ministry. John’s answer is a model for all of us: I (Ego) must decrease, and Jesus must increase (John 3:30). It was John who saw the Spirit descend upon Jesus, so John understood that the cultivation of divine love is a spiritual work—the first fruit of the Spirit.
In the words of 1 John, if we are to live in God and God in us, if we are to live in love, then God’s Spirit must accomplish this work in us. It is a fruit of the Spirit. God’s Spirit moves us to be more loving, less Ego-centric, and allows us to live in God. When we do that, 1 John says, we resemble Christ in this life. We don’t have to wait until an afterlife to resemble Christ. We are called to do so in this life.
In this life Jesus had no fear of punishment, 1 John tells us, and this made it possible for him to love and live the way he did. And so as the Spirit works in our lives, we can live without fear of punishment, that is, with less concern for the Ego and more concern for Christ. And the Spirit will bear the fruit of love.
One of the places God helps us to grow spiritually is at the Lord’s Table. At the Table our Egos get put in their place. For the Lord of life and of love serves us, each of us equally, at the Table. There we are reminded of God’s love for us. There we see again the demonstration of God’s love. The Table reminds us that we don’t have to fear punishment. And from the Table God sends us out to be Christ in the world, to love as he loves.
Questions for Reflection or Discussion
- Have you ever gotten spiritually depressed because you were trying too hard to love God? How might resting in God’s love, receiving it first, and serving others as an act of love help you regain some balance?
- What are some ways we can recognize an over-active Ego in our life? Paul gives us a hint at the end of his passage in Galatians: conceit, provocation, envy. We could add anger, condescension, or most anything that causes a rift between us and others or within ourselves. Love covers over a multitude of sin. After taking an inventory, ask God to work his love into your life so you can be free of these maladies of an over-active Ego.
- Have you ever thought about the Lord’s Table as more than just remembrance, that it is also a sending out to love? In what ways can you show love to others based on what we remember at the Table?